Risks in ‘Spring Awakening’ are worth rewarding

Photo Credit: Leslie Irwin | The Los Angeles Loyolan

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Risks in ‘Spring Awakening’ are worth rewarding – The Los Angeles Loyolan.

At what point does sheer risk-taking become more impressive than the actual result? It’s a question that comes to mind while watching the Del Rey Players’ first production of the year, “Spring Awakening,” the Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater musical about youth, love and sex, opening tonight at Del Rey Theatre in North Hall.

“Spring Awakening” is not an easy musical to perform. It’s vocally challenging for almost every performer – especially the male lead, Melchior, played here by freshman theatre arts major Kevin Dwyer, who is expected to jump to almost every possible pitch throughout his songs. It’s heart-wrenching – extremely so for Wendla (sophomore health and human sciences major Lacey Smith) who gets put through the emotional wringer. It also often requires the actors to be giving full performances in voice and emotion at once – special mention must go to Moritz (senior theatre arts major Jakob Berger), who is the least prominent of the main characters but does so much more every moment he’s on stage.

All of this alone would be hard. Yet director and senior theatre arts major Adam Dlugolecki has turned up the difficulty level by adding complex choreography (by senior dance and psychology double major Grace Goodwin) to several musical numbers. There’s so much happening you have to marvel at the scope of the show – but is any of it really helping the material?

The answer: yes. Also: no. But mostly: sometimes. Some songs benefit significantly from the added choreography – “The Dark I Know Well” goes from a dark ballad to an absolutely devastating confessional duet. Yet some songs are crushed under the weight of everything that’s happening – “I Believe” just looks silly, as the dancers surrounding Melchior and Wendla in a moment of raw passion distract the audience from one of the musical’s most important scenes.

At Monday’s tech rehearsal, the first for the show, things still needed to be tightened up. Small glitches, like Dwyer missing key changes, should be ironed out in the final version of the show, so it’s not worth fretting over. The chemistry is worrisome, though: Dwyer and Smith just don’t click. Almost every other pairing, romantic or platonic, has more sizzle. Junior theatre arts major Cameron Tapella and sophomore theatre arts major Mike Rose share a particularly strong spark in their duet, “The Word of Your Body (Reprise),” that makes the main coupling feel ice cold in comparison.

Melchior and Wendla’s relationship is hardly warm and fuzzy – the chemistry could have been dark and dangerous instead. But despite Smith’s virtuosic performance as Wendla – truly one of the best performances from an actress at LMU in years, so full of longing for more in her life – no form of chemistry ever bubbles up to the surface.

Dwyer is mostly solid as Melchior, but he seems the most distracted by all the extras Dlugolecki has added. His voice is a great fit on bombastic songs like “Totally F***ed,” but a total mismatch on quieter ones like “Left Behind.” Berger is a revelation as Moritz, bringing a boyish energy to the part that works wonders.

“Spring Awakening” is worth seeing because of its strong ensemble – truly not a weak link among the actors – and for Dlugolecki’s fresh take on the material. It’s not always seamless; in some cases, it’s arguably damaging to the intention of the text. But it’s that kind of experimentation that should be encouraged by the LMU theatre scene. Dlugolecki’s “Awakening” may not be better than a straightforward adaptation would have been, but it is certainly more interesting.

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How the Other Half Loves

Cast and staging appeals in ‘How the Other Half Loves’

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Cast and staging appeals in “How the Other Half Loves” – Los Angeles Loyolan.

How the Other Half Loves

Photo Credit: Kevin Halladay-Glynn | The Los Angeles Loyolan

The art direction of a play can vary from something spectacular and opulent to a bare stage, but it’s rare that the stage itself is one of the most fascinating parts of a production. In “How the Other Half Loves,” the Del Rey Players’ newest show currently on stage in the Del Rey Theatre, the set is not only crucial, but it keeps the pace lively and stages the characters against each other in a unique and fascinating fashion.

While the staging is fantastic, the show is more than just its set. Hilarious, lived-in performances and a sharp pace make this show an impressive feat and a thrill to experience. Director Joe Hospodor, a junior theatre arts major, has achieved a trifecta of able direction, great set design and universally strong performances to create a portrait of domestic life that doesn’t sacrifice the humanity of its characters in search for a laugh.

The setup is simple enough: Two couples in the early ‘70s occupy opposite sides of the wealth spectrum. Frank and Fiona Foster (freshman theatre arts major Ben Szymanski and sophomore theatre arts major Paulina Fricke) are comfortable; Bob and Teresa Phillips (senior theatre arts and political science double major Rechard Francois and sophomore theatre arts major Mackenzie Ward) are less than wealthy. The primary conflict comes from Fiona and Bob’s off-stage affair and the troubles in the Phillips’ marriage.

From that central point, countless misunderstandings and awkward confrontations spur the action, and a third couple, William and Mary Detweiler (sophomore theatre arts major Kent Jenkins and senior theatre arts major Ashley Donnert) are thrown into the fray to further complicate matters. The play itself, written by playwright Alan Ayckbourn, is cute, but hinges so much on the characterization and the actors’ timing to sell the comedy.

On that front, the cast delivers in droves. This sextet of performances deserves a place in the (sadly non-existent) LMU Theatre Arts Hall of Fame – truly, this is an ensemble without weak points. As the Phillips, Francois and Ward strike the perfect balance of hate/love chemistry. Ward’s drunk and angry wife could have easily become unlikable and ventured into ‘shrill harpy’ territory, but she stays hilarious and never lets you forget that she’s truly the victim in the messy web of relationships.

Jenkins and Donnert should be given the greatest of ovations for their pitch-perfect performances as the Detweilers. From first entrance to the crucial dinner scene, where they have to essentially act in two scenes at once, the pair is flawless. Jenkins has appeared in several productions during his two years at LMU, but no director before Hospodor has harnessed his lovable, dork energy anywhere near as effectively. Donnert steals every scene she’s in, playing Mary as a meek mouse who always seems to want a way out of the crisis.

Fricke and Szymanski have arguably the hardest task of any of the actors: The Fosters are by far the most detached of any of the couples despite their picture-perfect marriage. Fiona is a particularly difficult character to make human amidst her seeming disregard for her husband and icy interactions with Teresa. However, Fricke succeeds at making her more than an alpha bitch. Szymanski is pulling nothing less than Herculean duty in selling the comedy of his character. Almost everything he does physically and with his voice when delivering a joke slays his audience. He has a gift for comedy, something Hospodor was incredibly smart to notice.

From start to finish, the production just runs like a well-oiled machine. The staging, with both main rooms on one set, allows for giant portions of the show to flow uninterrupted and keep the energy high. The costume design is clever and period appropriate, with the color choices of particular note. The lighting, while simple, does its job – there are a few dramatic moments that heighten the suspense thanks to a smart change in color or intensity.

The show isn’t perfect: The quick dialogue sometimes causes the actors to trip over their words. But the show is hardly hindered by its small flaws. In fact, it seems all the more real.

“How the Other Half Loves” is not an epic with massive sets and a veritable truckload of cast members, but it doesn’t need to be. It accomplishes so much with six skilled performers and a stage that pushes the storytelling into a new realm. Hospodor directs every aspect of the performance to the brink of perfection and often manages to push it there. It is a truly appealing production and a joy to watch.

Four showings of “How the Other Half Loves” remain this Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. each night. Tickets can be bought through the Central Ticketing Agency.

The Bacchae of Euripides

Strong performances carry difficult ‘Bacchae’ material

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For orignal, please refer to: Strong performances carry difficult ‘Bacchae’ material – Los Angeles Loyolan.

The Bacchae of Euripides

Photo Credit: Devin Sixt | The Los Angeles Loyolan

It can be said that “The Bacchae of Euripides,” the newest production by LMU’s theatre arts and dance department, is a strange show. It is an intense show. It is a challenging show. But most importantly, it is a masterful show.

Based on “The Bacchae,” a Greek tragedy written by Euripides, and first performed in 405 BC this version, written by the President’s Marymount Institute Professor in Residence Wole Soyinka, is an African interpretation with powerful musical moments. It requires incredible levels of commitment from each member of the ensemble cast and sky-high energy levels, and under the direction of theatre arts professor Kevin Wetmore, “The Bacchae of Euripides” is a success because it achieves both.

The story is based on the myth of King Pentheus, a man who refuses to follow Dionysus, the god of wine (amongst other things). Pentheus and his mother, Agave, are both punished, as she is possessed by the same bloodlust and passion as Dionysus’ other female followers. Behind the basic plot are greater themes, including the battle between creation and oppression. This production communicates these themes through commanding dance and music.

Wetmore chose to create a sense of controlled chaos in the production, with modern and classical sensibilities merging in powerful fashion. The set, designed by theatre arts professor Maureen Weiss, is absolutely incredible, almost a jungle gym on a sparse stage that is used as setting, prop and musical instrument. Every inch of the stage is used, with actors venturing into the audience for even further exploration of the space. The costumes, which were created by visiting theatre arts professor Sara Ryung Clement, are an interesting mix of African and post-apocalyptic design, a fascinating choice and one that works really well.

While the play is incredibly visually appealing, it could only reach truly masterful status with the help of a strong, committed ensemble of actors. The dialogue is challenging and the choreography demanding, so both require nothing less than top-notch work from all involved. Luckily, there are only a few weak links here – almost every performer does stunning work. Sophomore theatre arts major Julian Garcia is especially stunning as King Pentheus. From his first line, he commands attention and owns the stage with volume and authority. His range is awe-inspiring and his sheer skill is impressive.

Many other members of the ensemble join Garcia in energetic and expressive work. Two that stand out are senior theatre arts major Jeremy Larrere as Tiresias, the blind priest, and freshman theatre arts major Keeley Miller as Agave. Larrere fully inhabits his character, playing not only the dramatic moments but also making the awkward attempts at humor bearable. Miller’s Agave is all about the drama and is something of a one-scene wonder, only appearing during the play’s final moments. But the revelation of her character’s actions is ambitious and impressive.

Several members of the ensemble are given powerful monologues that rarely slow the pace of the show – instead they act as showcases for each performer, even those in otherwise minor roles. Freshman theatre arts and communication studies double major Gabriel Gonzalvez truly wrings every dramatic drop out of his monologue, breaking out of the simple Officer role and making an impact. Junior theatre arts major Nelia Miller gets multiple monologues as the leader of the slaves and knocks each and every one out of the park.

“The Bacchae of Euripides” is not without its faults, however. As mentioned previously, there are several incredibly lowbrow stabs at humor that fall short, especially considering the powerful scenes surrounding them. Why the otherwise devastatingly potent production chose to dilute the drama with painfully unfunny penis jokes and men in drag is beyond me. Additionally, there are several scenes of both the comic and tragic variety that seemed to last forever, affecting the pacing of the show negatively. This production is at its best when it is fast-moving and there’s plenty going on – watching one actor lecture another for 10 minutes is nothing but a hindrance.

Those scenes and choices, though unfortunate, cannot derail what is ultimately a brilliant production. “The Bacchae of Euripides” is more than just a play. It is art in motion with commanding performances by committed actors. It is not to be missed.

“The Bacchae of Euripedes” is now in the middle of its run at Strub Theatre. It has three shows remaining, starting with tonight’s performance, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10.

Workin

Mellow ‘Working’ suffers from weak material

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Mellow ‘Working’ suffers from weak material – Los Angeles Loyolan.

Workin

Photo Credit: Kevin Halladay-Glynn | The Los Angeles Loyolan

Currently in the middle of a two-week stint at the Strub Theatre, the LMU theatre arts and dance department’s run of “Working,” the musical adaptation of the Studs Terkel book of the same name, is about the occupations of everyday people.

The goal, it would seem, would be to take these ordinary jobs and make them extraordinary through performance, but the lack of strong narrative in the show keeps the songs from being anything other than standalone musical performances punctuating small vignettes.

Professor Jim Holmes’s direction is solid considering his source material. He has taken several liberties, including rap verses of some songs, but ultimately the original musical just isn’t strong enough to keep an audience invested. Actors change characters quickly with no real introduction, and the songs, while well performed, aren’t wholly memorable.

The ensemble talent is good, with some standouts, but on opening night there was an overwhelming sense of apathy permeating the show. The actors almost universally looked disconnected from their performances, putting on good faces for the sake of the theater, but never seeming to enjoy themselves.

It’s a shame that the energy level of the cast seemed so low because there were seriously strong highlights among them. Senior theatre arts major MacKenzie Campbell gets a few solid numbers, but her brightest moment is also the entire show’s shining showstopper: “Just a Housewife.” In it, Campbell’s character, Kate Rushton, laments the judgments of society and how she’s seen as “just someone’s mother.” The song is the best composed of any in the show, and Campbell knocks it out of the park.

Neither the character of Roberto Nuñez nor that of Anthony Coehlo gets a strong song to call his own. That’s disappointing because sophomore theatre arts major Julian Garcia has the best energy and investment among the ensemble. With a strong song, he could have used his dulcet singing voice and high energy to steal the show. Instead, he’s left with “Un Mejor Dia Vendra,” a song that, while lovely, isn’t quite noteworthy enough. Even worse is “Cleanin’ Women,” a song performed by the clearly talented sophomore theatre arts major Imani Hayes as character Maggie Holmes. The tune is significantly weaker than it could have been – it’s more of a trifle than a powerful statement about working in housekeeping so that the future generations wouldn’t have to suffer the same fate. Not only that, but the song is simply unmemorable. A strong performer like Hayes deserves a song that shakes the rafters, not one so thoroughly bland.

The word “bland” is, in fact, a pretty good way to sum up the show. The music, while performed with aplomb by the live band, is just too basic and standard to be unforgettable. The acting talent, while at a high caliber, never really gets excited about their work. The set design is intriguing, using vertical movement well, and the lighting design is really fascinating at several different points, both musical and non-musical. But even great visuals can’t boost the energy of the show too much.

Despite Holmes’s strength as a director, it must be questioned why “Working” was chosen in the first place. Musicals are meant to be a kick, a blast of surrealism that exaggerate life and are punctuated with a giant exclamation point. Sadly, “Working” ends not with an exclamation point, but with a period. It just never fulfills its mission and leaves the audience wondering what could have been.

Catch-22

Review: Latest theatre arts production is impossible to ‘Catch’

Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: Review: Latest theatre arts production is impossible to ‘Catch’ – Los Angeles Loyolan.

Catch-22

Photo Credit: Andres Andrieu | The Los Angeles Loyolan

“Catch-22,” the latest production put on by LMU’s theatre arts program, which is currently running in Strub Theatre, is a bit like a machine. For the first act, the machine appears to be operating perfectly – as long as one doesn’t take too close a look. Its second act, however, is more akin to watching the machine’s external façade fall apart.

There are extremely bright highlights in “Catch-22,” from some of the supporting actors to the phenomenal set design. It is therefore upsetting to watch such an underwhelming show fail to support these fantastic elements.

For those never forced to read the book in school, “Catch-22” is the story of U.S. army soldiers in World War II, particularly one officer, Yossarian (played here by sophomore theatre arts major Alex Ford). Yossarian attempts to get out of the army after flying over 51 missions and fails in all his efforts as he watches other soldiers on his missions die. Despite the heavy subject matter, “Catch-22” finds the comedy in the absurdity and inescapability of the war.

Directed by theatre arts professor Jim Holmes, this production of “Catch-22” suffers from pacing issues and an overall feeling of exhaustion emanating from the cast. Perhaps the actors are tired of trying to keep up with the ever-changing speed of the show. In the first act, the action is on constant fast-forward: The actors deliver their lines as quickly as possible, as though the goal is not to put on a great show but merely to get to the end of the show. The second act almost immediately throws on the brakes, slowing the show down to an almost interminable slog. There seems to be no end in sight among all the flatly delivered lines and lack of any noticeable action.

Almost all the highlights come in the first act. The show opens with projections on the walls immediately drawing the audience into the 1940s. The set, designed by theatre arts professor Charles Erven, is quite appealing – all the different combinations and formations made possible by the rotating walls and interchangeable sets allow for a great diversity of setting, automatically elevating the show beyond other productions of this caliber. The setting can also change quickly, allowing for a quick pace that should have been used to slow down the action.

Many actors in small roles use their limited time in the center of the action to leave an immediate and lasting impression. Freshman theatre arts major Adam Dlugolecki is perhaps the most realistic in his role as P.F.C. Wintergreen. Dlugolecki has a natural gift for comic timing, made obvious from his precise and effective line readings.  He steals almost every scene in which he appears.

One scene in a hospital is gifted with four great talents, all freshman theatre arts majors: Kyle Lynch as a patient who has more energy flailing in a hospital bed than most of the more prevalent cast members do when they’re up and walking, and Jakob Rodriguez-Berger, the patient’s father who, along with Melanie Abrams as his mother and Michael Chiaverini as his brother, get served a comedic hardball and knock it out of the park.

As a psychiatrist, sophomore theatre arts major Joe Hospodor is an absolute character, a perfect fit for such a quick-witted show. He’s capable of moving at the same pace as the rest of the show.

The strongest talent isn’t limited to the minor roles, however. Theatre arts major Brett Bezad is full of energy as Colonel Cathcart, and unfaltering in his delivery. Cathcart is one of the more zany characters, and Bezad is unafraid of squeezing every comedic drop from the source. Freshman theatre arts major Scott Bosely is similarly energetic, giving his paranoid Corporal Whitcomb a powerful presence on-stage.

Unfortunately, the show rides on the shoulders of Ford, and sadly, he disappoints in his role. He plays almost every scene with the same level of energy – not that he has low energy, but rather that he has no variation whatsoever. There are no peaks and valleys in his performance: it’s a completely static portrayal. While he has a charm that helps with humor, his delivery leaves something to be desired. He appears to still mentally be in rehearsal – he sounds like he’s reading his lines rather than inhabiting the role of Yossarian. In fact, on opening night, he was still tripping over lines in the final throes of the performance. The sense of exhaustion that permeates the majority of the cast seems to affect no one more than Ford.

With the only real change in tone throughout the play being the odd mood whiplash halfway through the second act, all the humor disappears, and with it goes the life of the production. “Catch-22” is meant to be a seriocomedy, with the elements melding well. Instead, it is three-quarters hit-and-miss comedy and a quarter poorly executed drama.

The most accurate description of “Catch-22” might be that it defies definition in the worst way. The production is all over the place, making it virtually impossible to catch – but there still remain true highlights to grasp in stronger aspects and actors in the play.